Colombia: release of persons in the hands of FARC
The recent release of 15 hostages and detainees in Colombia and the use of the Red Cross emblem during this operation have hit the world's headlines. The ICRC's head of operations for Latin America, Maria dos Anjos Gussing, answers some questions.
No, the ICRC was not involved in this operation, nor was it aware of plans to carry it out.
What's your reaction to the fact that the Red Cross emblem was used during the operation?We have taken note of the statement by the Colombian President clarifying that the emblem was displayed during the operation. It's important to underline that the use of the Red Cross emblem is specifically regulated by international humanitarian law. It must be respected in all circumstances and its misuse is prohibited. The ICRC is following up this issue of the misuse through its confidential dialogue with the Colombian authorities.
Respect for this emblem is vital because it enables ICRC staff to access the areas most affected by the armed conflict in order to protect and assist people in need – whether in Colombia or elsewhere. As a neutral and impartial humanitarian organization, the ICRC has to have the trust of all the parties to the conflict to be able to do this. Therefore it is important that the Colombian authorities take all the necessary measures to ensure that this does not happen again.
What are the implications for your operations in the field?
Such an abuse of the emblem obviously concerns the ICRC, as it may give rise to suspicion towards those wearing the emblem, ICRC and Colombian Red Cross delegates and employees for example. The ICRC has dozens of delegates permanently present in the Colombian countryside and still counts on the protection of the Red Cross emblem to carry out its activities. We have decided to continue our operations to alleviate the su ffering caused by the internal conflict. We therefore call upon all parties to the conflict and armed groups to trust the ICRC and the Colombian Red Cross and to interact with delegates and staff to understand our work on behalf of those suffering from the internal conflict in Colombia.
When the ICRC has been involved in the liberation of hostages in the past, how have you done it?
First, we always make sure that both sides agree with our role as a neutral humanitarian intermediary. Second, we obtain security guarantees from both parties to carry out the release operation. Third, the operation has to be carried out according to our own procedures, including marking aircraft or vehicles with clearly visible red cross emblems, placing ICRC delegates in each of them and ensuring that the delegates are in charge of all decisions that might have to be taken during the operation. Working in this way has enabled us to facilitate the liberation of dozens of hostages and detainees in Colombia over the past few years.
Does the ICRC ever participate in military operations?
No, the ICRC does not participate in any military operation carried out by a party to an armed conflict because this would jeopardize our neutrality and independence. But this is not just about us because it would have a direct impact on our capacity to alleviate the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people that we are currently assisting in Colombia.
What about the remaining hostages and detainees?
We hope that the remaining hostages will soon return to their families and homes. Provided all parties concerned agree, as was the case in the releases carried out i n January and February 2008, we are ready to play our role as a neutral intermediary to facilitate further releases.